Popular exotic pets

Ruth David, Forbes.com

, Last Updated: 2:05 PM ET

New York -  Haley R. Hilderbrand wanted her high-school yearbook picture to be striking. So the 17-year-old senior decided to pose alongside a Siberian tiger in a family-run animal sanctuary in Kansas. Bad move: The animal went berserk, attacked and killed the girl.

Spurred largely by Hilderbrand's death, Kansas passed a law banning dangerous exotic animals as pets. And the growing interest in adopting animals that belong in the jungle, not in high-rise apartments, is prompting many other states to tighten their laws.

About two dozen states, including California, Vermont and New Hampshire, already ban exotic pets--usually defined as any animal that is not a dog, cat, fish, horse or rabbit. Maryland is moving to strengthen its laws, and Florida legislators are drafting laws to stop an invasion of giant snakes.

Click here to see some popular exotic pets.

Invasion of giant snakes? Yep. Pet Burmese pythons, released into the wild by their owners, have infested Florida's Everglades and are threatening the native wildlife--there are often violent clashes between the 20-foot-long snakes and alligators.

The State Department estimates the worldwide annual black market for wildlife and wildlife parts rakes in around $10 billion annually. The numbers are only exceeded by trafficking in arms and drugs. These illegal markets are often run by the same criminals and share smuggling routes, the State Department says.

Of course, not all animal lovers are interested in predators. Smaller creatures, like ferret foxes, tarantulas, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, bearded dragons (lizards native to Australia), squirrels and frogs are also popular companions.

But often, owners underestimate the time and effort that goes into taking care of a wild animal, says Lianne McLeod, a former vet and author of About.com's Guide to Exotic Pets.

"Far too many pets are acquired on an impulse and discarded later when they become too large or too difficult," McLeod says. She adds that, contrary to popular belief, it is quite difficult to dispose of an exotic pet. Zoos usually don't want them, and "there is not much of a market in the pet trade for older animals that may have behavioral issues."

Another problem with wild pets, especially ones imported from other countries, is the risk that they can spread diseases to humans. The monkey pox outbreak in the U.S. in the summer of 2003 was caused by prairie dogs that were believed to have caught the disease from pet rats imported from Africa.

And the Centers for Disease Control warns that as reptiles become increasingly common as pets, so do salmonella infections in their owners. Around 74,000 Americans are believed to contract the disease from reptiles annually.

Another issue for would-be exotic pet owners: vet bills.

Vets today offer advanced treatment options, including radiation therapy and intensive care, says James K. Morrisey, a professor at Cornell University and chief of the Exotic Animal Medicine Service. For instance, Morrisey and his team amputated the toe of a 50-gram flying squirrel this month. Yet while it now might be possible to get medical care for nearly any type of animal, don't expect it to come cheaply.

While the effort and money that goes into buying and caring for an exotic pet may make the traditional favorites--dogs and cats--seem like paradise, at least wild animals make for unique photo ops. Just don't try to befriend your neighbor's pet chimpanzee or drive with your snake wrapped around you. People in the U.S. have attempted both, with disastrous results.


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